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Designer's Challenge

May 1, 2006 By: Danielle DiGiacomo Home-Based Travel Agent
 

How to set up the most efficient home office possible


Creating A Workable Home Office Can Be Daunting if you've left the storefront behind and set up a business in a second bedroom or a corner of the dining room. How do you carve out a niche from your living space that's suitable for your business? Is it possible (without the help of interior designers, Feng Shui experts, and Donald Trump's budget) to create a stylish, well-executed home office? In a word, yes.

Home-based agents of various backgrounds reveal that, while the details and processes of carving out their home offices were diverse, essential components were similar. Tonya Fitzpatrick's office is carved out of a corner of the couple's large living room.

Terri Maldonado—"The Cruise Gal" (www.cruisegal.com)—runs a wildly successful operation, with 36 agents (all home-based) working under her. A little more than a decade ago, she took a risk and embraced the urge to be at home with her child. Having never been in the travel business, she "didn't have pre-conceived ideas about whether it would be easy or hard to have a travel career at home," she says.

Sometimes, a lack of precedence can be liberating, so Maldonado got to work building up her agency out of a small bedroom with no closet. The lack of storage space proved unbearable, so on a friend's recommendation, she phoned California Closets and built a highly efficient unit of built-in file cabinets, shelves and a desktop. When Maldonado's husband retired, the couple moved to Phoenix, AZ, where she essentially repeated this process—this time with more space, experience and money.

Much as corporate employees move from a cubicle to a corner office, Maldonado moved into a large bedroom with a closet and adjacent bathroom. Today, she says, "I have an office suite in my house." Corky Champagne-Einersen's office was a disorganized mess.

Like Maldonado, California-based Lori Pelentay of Kensington Cruises decided to mingle business with child rearing. "I am a single mom with two young children, so it's important for me to run my business from home," she says. Pelentay has two home-based jobs—one booking cruises and another as director of a direct sales company. Her office is small, but it works, she says, "because I can close the door. It's too hard to do it in the corner of the living room or bedroom. This way, my work can take up the whole room, and I don't have to worry about it, no matter how messy it is!"

During the four years she has worked from home, her office, like her business, has evolved, but she lists her essentials: a good computer with lots of memory, high-speed Internet connection, a brochure organizer, file cabinets, CLIA's manual, a printer/fax machine and a wireless headset (for more information on technology for the home-based business). Pelentay neglects to mention a desk or chair; with all this mobile technology, she works all over town.

Although she has no children, Tonya Fitzpatrick of Bronze World Travel does have a dog named Quincy, her company's "mascot." Such quirky traits help make Fitzpatrick's home-based agency a success. Fitzpatrick and her husband started the business about a year ago upon leaving jobs as legal advisors. Unlike Maldonado and Pelentay, Fitzpatrick's office occupies a section of her spacious living room, and is colorfully decorated with her father-in-law's paintings. Now, her stylish space helps her sell travel without missing a beat.

Using Target and Staples as her main vendors, Fitzpatrick set up a comfortable office, complete with filing cabinets ("very valuable"). Still, she admits, "Since the office is literally part of our living space, we face a continuous challenge of trying to keep office items separate from our living space. We haven't mastered the art of setting office boundaries yet."

Spring Cleaning

Some agents seek advice and conduct extensive research, while others just make it up as they go along. But, although the perfect office can just develop on its own as a natural extension of the agent's space and personality, sometimes an extreme makeover becomes inevitable. Enter Royal Caribbean International.

When RCI launched the Home Office Makeover competition in 2004 as part of its campaign to reach out to home-based agents, thousands across the country entered. Among them were Alaska-based Corky Champagne-Einarsen, and Montana native Melissa Slamb, both of whom jumped at the chance to do some "spring cleaning." Resources

Champagne-Einarsen, a proactive spitfire, runs the cruise-booking agency, Anchors Away Cruise Outlet, as well as a tour company, Alaska Adventure Unlimited. Slamb, too, is a ball of energy, focusing on three suppliers: Walt Disney World, Club Med Resorts and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity Cruises.

To enter the drawing, agents were asked to submit a paragraph talking about their offices and what a makeover would allow them to change in the future. In her winning entry, Champagne-Einarsen wrote of both the struggles she had overcome and hopes for her thriving future.

"From behind a desk in my cabin in the woods of Alaska, with more enthusiasm than education, I began selling cruises," she wrote. "Just as I was growing my business, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Nine surgeries and 18 months later, there was a damper on my spirit, not to mention funding. Now, a fully recovered survivor, I am surging forward. Of all the things I can use and need, [winning] the 'Extreme Home Office Makeover' [would] organize and bring my business into the technical year of 2005." Sitting Pretty

Slamb's entry began with a desperate plea for help. In her first paragraph, she wrote of the detrimental effect her recent move had on her travel business: "I am throwing in the virtual towel and waving my white flag to get your attention! In the first quarter of 2004, before our move, I sold 51 cabins on cruise lines; since the move, I have sold nothing. I am drowning in my own paperwork and stuff! I believe if I am organized and my office revitalized, I will be able to sell more Royal Caribbean International product and increase my bottom line."

Slamb created a David Letterman-esque list of the "Top 10 Reasons why you should choose to save me from drowning in this sea of chaos and throw me a life-ring in my home-office nightmare." Number One: "My 20-year-old couch and 25-year-old brown-and-orange chenille chair I keep for client consultations have seen more action than my group client files!" Melissa Slamb focused her energy on organizing the clutter.

Selected as two of six winners, Champagne-Einarsen and Slamb were flown to Florida to meet with the RCI designers. Each woman was given $1,000 to spend on items of her choice from Office Depot. With the help of a team of designers, Champagne-Einarsen chose a desk, shelving system and credenza, all part of Christopher Lowell's signature collection. Her goal was to conquer the piles of paper that had accumulated over the years and move into the virtual age.

The goal was achieved; with her beloved TRAMS software package (Back Office for accounting and ClientBase Plus for booking and organizing), the agent just keeps on thriving. For Champagne-Einarsen, switching to this powerful program was a transforming move. Now the Alaskan agent works out of her small, streamside chalet (where bears and hawks have been sighted) and so do the few agents she employs.

Slamb chose a desk, hutch, rug and a few accessories. But the furniture was less important than the input of the design team who worked with her, helped her paint her walls, organized her space efficiently, and most importantly, encouraged her to throw out the piles of paperwork and focus on the virtual, clearing clutter from her office and mind.

Now, Slamb says, "I feel like I am working in an office, not a loft space. It is much more professional, so even though I do not see clients here, I feel more on top of my game because I know where everything is." When asked how the office makeover has changed her attitude at work, she laughs and says, simply, "I like it now." Champagne-Einarsen says her new, sleeker, more technologically up-to-date office has allowed her to maximize efficiency and feel more liberated in general. The contest gave this survivor a chance to throw out the detritus of the past and move into travel's tech-based future.

Of Chairs & Clutter

While each piece of the puzzle is important, every agent has a favorite element. Maldonado has a special affection for the seat she calls "the Cadillac of chairs," a hydraulic model with movable arms, an adjustable seat and a webbed back. While she paid a little over a cool grand for it, she believes it was worth it, and she advises people to "buy the very best chair you can afford. You will spend countless hours in it. If it isn't comfortable, you will pay!"

And Fitzpatrick would sit on the floor if the only thing she could keep was her filing cabinet. She notes, "As I book clients, generate invoices, research travel options, etc., I am constantly bombarded with paper, and I hate clutter! A filing cabinet allows me to organize my files and reduce the amount of clutter that accumulates on the desk."

Piled-up paper was a recurring theme for all the agents. Maldonado says only half-jokingly that her biggest mistake was "killing so many trees. I had pieces of paper everywhere, and lacked a good database and software package." Champagne-Einarsen acknowledges that she had piles of pulp that reached the ceiling, while Fitzpatrick laments the "clutter everywhere." Slamb, who had such trouble letting go of the pulp she had stored for years, advises other agents to "stop worrying about stocking brochures. It's all online!"

Although a stylish office is certainly nice to look at, each of the women Home-Based Travel Agent interviewed emphasizes that the main benefit of a well-designed home workspace is its effect on one's mental state. The most important thing about a home office is the ability to be there, and to focus on the business of one's business, as opposed to the business of laundry, dinner, shopping and that endless list of other life tasks.

"Definitely pay attention to your organizational space," says Slamb. "If it is handy and you know exactly where everything is, you will save time throughout your day."

Pelentay's advice to "treat your home office as a 'real job,' with real hours" will be easier if that office is a pleasant place to be. Says Terri, "Having your own workspace is vital, whether it's in your home or a 1,000-person office." All of these industrious agents prove that home is not only where the heart is—it's also where the bread is won.


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